Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ship Shape

Hollywood's depiction of space travel has changed in no more obvious way than the shape of its movies' star-bound spacecraft. Here's a brief look at what the different designs of interstellar vehicles indicate about the movies that feature them.
Classic Rocket
Destination Moon (1950)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The gleaming "silver bullet" rocket exemplifies a positive vision of human space travel in 1950's science fiction. Producer George Pal used it in both Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951), the former to depict the first lunar landing and the latter to show humans escaping a doomed Earth to a nearby planet.

Streamlined Saucer
Forbidden Planet (1956)
In the 1950's, the seamless metal flying saucer was the preferred method of intergalactic travel for alien visitors both peaceful (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and otherwise (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). It was also used by Earth astronauts in Forbidden Planet.

The Day the Earth Stood
This Island Earth (1955)
Earth vs. the Flying
Complex Saucer
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The flying saucer was still in use by alien visitors at the time of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though its smooth singular exterior had given way to a compound hull with multiple arrays of towers and antennae. While the aliens of Close Encounters were benign, in following decades their type of craft (rough-hewn when not spired or spiked) often brought only trouble.

The Thing (1982)
Independence Day (1996)
The X Files (1998)
District 9 (2009)
Industrial Workhorse
Alien (1979)
The late 70's also transformed Hollywood's vision of human-piloted space travel. Movies like Alien presented spaceships with a heavy industrial design which transported blue-collar workers or soldiers of the future to and from deep space on long, arduous tours of duty. Often this type of ship telegraphed something else about these films — they would be scary. Space was no longer the exclusive realm of science fiction: horror was claiming its piece of the void.

Aliens (1986)
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Event Horizon (1997)
Modular Long-Range Transport
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Presaged three decades earlier by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running (1973), this design has been featured in several films of the early 21st century. Slender, delicate, often separating into shorter segments or carrying smaller ships in tow, these vessels present a contemporary view of "realistic" deep space travel.

Mission to Mars (2000)
Solaris (2002)
Avatar (2009)